Virtual Life in a Storyless World

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Adventure, Zork, Dungeon. If you were one of the fortunate few who lived at the vanguard of the digital revolution in the late 1970s, these three great progenitors of the multi-billion dollar video game industry may well induce fuzzy feelings of nerd nostalgia. For the rest of us, these “interactive fiction” games, belong to a rather strange and fanciful era, when gamers set out on virtual quests in front of cathode-ray terminals, reading neon-green block-letter instructions and responding with identically hued inline commands.

You are at the southern edge of a great cavern. To the south across a shallow ford is a dark tunnel which looks like it was once enlarged and smoothed. To the north a narrow path winds among stalagmites. Dim light illuminates the cavern.”

> go south

You have moved into a dark place.
It is pitch black. You are likely to be eaten by a grue. (Zork)

A lot has changed since Zork. The role playing games (RPGs) that began as ascii-coded choose-your-own-adventure books navigated by MSDOS-style commands have evolved into great virtual realms rendered in spectacular detail, navigated by millions of virtual heroes, and monied with virtual currency. The most successful, World of Warcraft, counts over 100 million user accounts. The in-game currency of Everquest has been valued higher than the Japanese yen. The virtual real estate of Minecraft now includes a 1:1 replica of the country of Denmark. This is not your grandpa’s text adventure.

Whence the popularity of the cooperative RPG? What does this tell us about the human condition?

Let’s compare the virtual world to the world that is left behind. In the game world, everything exists for you. Behind every artfully rendered dungeon detail, behind every path, every cave, every shield, lies an intelligence, a providential programmer who has created the world for a purpose. There are no coincidences. Is that a ring of power, a skeleton key, a magic flute? There’s a reason it exists. It exists for you and for your mission. Is that NPC (that’s a “non-player character” for you newbies) trying to tell you something? There’s a reason for the programmed dialogue. It is for you. It is for the sake of your mission. In the game world, everything is saturated with significance. You must be attentive and awake, because nothing falls outside the story.

Then, you sign off: the cold reentry into our post-modern world—a world that, in the words of Robert Jenson, “has no story and so cannot entertain promises.” In the game you at least had a story: a role, a goal, and a path to take. Your progress was measured and sure. But in the world of the secular, postmodern West, our great story is being willfully forgotten. The great narrative of salvation history, which for so many centuries saturated the world with significance, is being rejected as having no place in the realm of public reason. No comprehensive doctrines. No totalizing world views. No story to shape our public culture. And as the Rawlsian solution to the problem of pluralism is more and more fully realized, the great story of salvation is more and more fully marginalized. Publicly at least, man finds himself in a world without a story. And that is a dreadful place to be—worse than Zork’s dark place with the threat of grue.

Of course, no matter how marginalized or publicly forgotten it may have become, the great story is remembered by many of us: The cosmos is created. Man is fallen. Christ is risen from the dead. He is coming again. And, no matter how meaningless human life may look in the nihilistic light of public reason, many remember the great mission we have received. Pledge God your fealty. Embrace your vocation. Progress in graced virtue unto eternal glory. Become as God, see God himself. Rise on the Last Day. No artfully rendered virtual world can compare with this created cosmos. No coded quest can compare with the mission of deification written in the blood of God on the cross. This adventure is real. It is the story authored by Truth Himself.

You are in a beautiful garden in front of an empty tomb. To the west across a small valley stands a hill pierced by dark crosses. To the east, only a few yards away, stands a mysterious man clothed in white. His presence radiates life, and even the ground seems to shake with joy beneath his feet. With a pierced hand he beckons to you.

> follow him

Image: Screenshot from Zork

By | 2015-02-06T09:43:01+00:00 May 5, 2014|Culture, Easter|

About this Brother:

Br. Dominic Mary Verner, O.P.
Fr. Dominic Verner was ordained to the priesthood in May, 2016. He attended Purdue University, where he graduated with a degree in Electrical Engineering. He went on to study at Mount Saint Mary's University, graduating with a masters in philosophical studies before entering the Order of Preachers in 2010. On DominicanFriars.org